PARIS — The French Cultural Exception is playing out for real as Gallic actors and showbiz workers go on strike over government plans to cut their unemployment benefit.
Protestors are due to demonstrate on the streets of Paris today, and industrial action has already hit theaters and festivals up and down the country.
On Monday, protests forced the Bastille Opera to cancel its performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Sicilian Vespers,” while the Comedie Francaise — France’s equivalent of the Royal Shakespeare Company — was hit at the weekend. A popular dance festival in the southern town of Montpellier was called off late last week.
But the real fall-out is outside Paris as cities struggle to stage summer festivals that are lucrative tourist draws and, in some cases, mainstays of the cultural calendar.
A popular dance festival in the southern town of Montpellier was called off late last week. A smaller event in the southern port of Marseille has also been canceled, while the nearby Aix-en-Provence festival — a pull for 50,000 opera lovers every year — has scrapped the first three days of performances this week.
In a move that has the government quaking, unions have called a general strike for July 8 — the day the Avignon Theater Festival, France’s highest-profile summer event, kicks off. Last year, the fest attracted 52,000 visitors.
In a radio interview, Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon called the industrial action “a drama for these festivals from a cultural point of view.”
He also went on pubcaster France 2’s evening news show Monday to appeal to the strikers to “read the government’s proposals before writing them off.”
The government claims its reforms are designed to tackle widespread abuse of the system, not to prevent genuine actors and technicians from earning an honest living.
At present, actors must work 507 hours in 12 months to be entitled to a year’s benefits. Under the new plans, due to start in October, they will have to work 507 hours over 10.5 months to earn eight months of benefits.
The government said the reform is necessary because of a growing deficit between contributions paid into the scheme by the profession and paid-out benefits. That gap cost the state the equivalent of $955 million, up 25% in two years.
Aillagon’s pleading has not cut any ice with showbiz folk, whose generous unemployment system is the envy of hard-up thesps and industry workers the world over.
“It’s going to be a hot summer,” one union rep said defiantly.
(Reuters contributed to this report).